Iran’s agreement to “suspend” her nuclear program in exchange for economic benefits from the European Union has dampened that crisis for the moment.  The Bush administration’s vocal skepticism about the agreement, however, suggests that the crisis has not been defused.  Moreover, Iran emphasizes that her nuclear activities have only been suspended, not abolished.  That is precisely the same distinction North Korea made when she signed her 1994 agreement with the United States, and we are now in the midst of a new confrontation with that country over her renewed quest for nuclear weapons.

We do not have definitive evidence that Iran’s nuclear program is for the purpose of developing nuclear weapons.  It is possible that the Iranians are telling the truth—that they are simply pursuing a program for peaceful power generation.  Departing Secretary of State Colin Powell is probably right, though, that Tehran has embarked on a program to build nuclear weapons and is rapidly developing ballistic missiles as a delivery system.  U.S. policy needs to take into account that very real possibility.  We should not, indeed dare not, adopt a policy based on an excessively optimistic scenario.

Why would Iran want to build nuclear weapons?  In attempting to answer that question, we need to look at why the vast majority of countries decide to remain non-nuclear.  Only a small number have ventured down the path, and some of them have turned around before the end.  South Africa is a notable example.

There are important reasons why most countries choose not to acquire a nuclear-weapons capability.  For one thing, it is very expensive.  The opportunity cost is regarded as prohibitive.  Occasionally, a poor country such as North Korea will be willing to make a nuclear-weapons program the highest priority, but most governments will not make the sacrifice.  A decision to go nuclear also has important adverse diplomatic repercussions.  Trying to build a nuclear arsenal is not the way to win friends in the international community.  Most governments become extremely agitated when a country seeks to break out of the nonproliferation system, and any would-be nuclear power has to take that hostility into consideration.  Finally, by trying to acquire a nuclear arsenal, a country may trigger or exacerbate a regional arms race and, at the end of the process, be no more secure than at the beginning—and, perhaps, even less secure.

On the other hand, there are some important reasons why a country might decide to go nuclear.  One is prestige.  The global nuclear-weapons club is a very exclusive association.  All five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council are nuclear-weapons states, and a sixth, India, is likely to become a permanent member in the next few years.  Countries that have nuclear weapons are treated differently from non-nuclear powers.  Before they became nuclear powers in 1998, India and Pakistan were treated with little respect by other international actors.  India was considered a chronic Third World underachiever; Pakistan, a problem state—if not a potential failed state.  Those countries are treated far differently now.

Another motive to go nuclear is to deter or intimidate a regional adversary.  That appeared to be a consideration for both India and Pakistan.  India had long sought to overawe her smaller neighbor, and possessing a nuclear arsenal eventually became part of that strategy.  Pakistan, in turn, concluded that she had to neutralize India’s growing conventional military advantage as well as her new nuclear capability.  A nuclear deterrent was the most decisive and cost-effective way to achieve that goal.  Beyond her regional rivalry with Pakistan, India was also concerned about the rising military power of China, as India’s then-minister of defense George Fernandes emphasized.

In addition to the motive of deterrence within a region, there is a potential motive of broader deterrence—especially to deter the United States.  Here, we need to be realistic about the unintended consequences of some U.S. actions.  The United States has taken major military action on nine occasions since the end of the Cold War.  That is an extraordinary record of belligerence, and, although many Americans may think that those episodes were justified, other countries do not necessarily see it the same way.  In particular, countries such as Iran and North Korea have seen how the United States has treated such non-nuclear adversaries as Serbia and Iraq, and that may have led to the conclusion that a prudent deterrence strategy required a nuclear capability.

So what are Iran’s possible motives to go nuclear?  Prestige is certainly one consideration—a factor even when the shah was in power.  Prestige does not appear to be the dominant reason in Iran’s case today.  Deterrence, both regional and extraregional, seems to be a more important consideration.  The region surrounding Iran is volatile and hostile, and Russia, Israel, Pakistan, and India all have nuclear weapons.

Iran very likely is also reacting to U.S. actions.  President Bush’s “Axis of Evil” speech, linking Iran to Iraq and North Korea, came as a prelude to an invasion and occupation of Iraq.  A policymaker in Tehran (or Pyongyang) might well assume that his country will be on the U.S. hit list at some point.

In addition to President Bush’s hostile rhetoric, the United States has deployed her forces in ways that many Iranians find menacing.  U.S. troops are already in several Persian Gulf states and have been in that region since the first Gulf War.  Additional forces have now been deployed to some of the Central Asian republics, to Afghanistan, and, of course, to Iraq.  To leaders in Tehran, those moves look suspiciously like an encirclement strategy.  Iran’s apparent response in wanting to build nuclear weapons is not irrational; it is quite logical.

Given such motives, what are the chances of getting Iran to relent?  The European strategy—bribery, not to be too polite about it—might work.  One can certainly hope that the agreement negotiated with Tehran by the three principal E.U. powers in November 2004 will achieve its goal.  It is certainly more likely to work than is the U.S. strategy of isolation and pressure, which has repeatedly failed.

The even more aggressive strategy that has been proposed by some supporters of the Bush administration, to push for regime change, is not likely to work without a massive and risky application of U.S. military power.  Regime change in Iran, if it could be achieved at all, would come at a very substantial price in terms of blood and treasure and, as we have seen in Iraq, could also produce some extremely unpleasant side effects.  It is an option that should not be adopted casually.  Moreover, there is no guarantee that even a democratic Iranian government would give up the quest for nuclear weapons, since the factors of prestige and regional deterrence would still exist.

What, then, do we do if Iran cannot be bribed, pressured, or threatened into changing her course?  One option would be to impose comprehensive economic sanctions, authorized by the U.N. Security Council.  There are problems with that strategy, however.  First of all, there are key powers in the international system—most notably France, Russia, and China—who are unlikely to go along with sanctions.  Any one of those powers, as a permanent member of the Security Council, could veto a sanctions resolution.  And even if those countries went along with U.S. policy, economic sanctions have had an unimpressive record of accomplishing their stated goals.

A second option would be the use of military force against known or suspected nuclear sites, either directly by the United States or by outsourcing that job to Israel.  Regardless of which method was used, it would be a distinction without a difference.  If Israel attacks Iran’s nuclear installations, the United States is going to be blamed, especially by the Muslim world.  Washington is so closely identified with Israeli policy in the region that there is no way we will have plausible deniability.  Moreover, the use of military force is a tremendously dangerous strategy.  Terrorist retaliation against the perpetrators of such attacks would be almost certain, and air strikes against Iran could even trigger a regional war.

There is a third option that we need to consider.  That option is a strategy of acceptance combined with deterrence.  Oddly enough, Americans seem to have lost a great deal of confidence in deterrence in recent years.  Exhibit A is what the United States did to Iraq.  The argument of the Bush administration and its supporters was that if Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction—and, in that case, we were talking about chemical and biological weapons, which are not truly weapons of mass destruction—the United States was justified in launching a preemptive war.  If Saddam had those weapons, the reasoning went, we could not rely on deterrence.

That was always a very odd assumption.  The United States has over 3,000 weapons in her strategic arsenal, and that is more than enough to deter any rational nation-state.  Moreover, consider the regimes we have deterred in the past.  The United States deterred a succession of Soviet rulers starting with Joseph Stalin.  We deterred Maoist China.  Why, then, do some people assume that we cannot deter the regime in Tehran?

It is not that the mullahs are more brutal than Stalin and Mao.  As a colleague of mine has pointed out, Mao and Stalin were the gold and silver medalists in the 20th century’s genocide Olympics.  The mullahs might be bad, but compared to them they seem petty offenders.  Nor are the mullahs more unpredictable and irrational.  Consider that China acquired her nuclear-weapons capability at the onset of the Cultural Revolution.  China in the late 1960’s and early 70’s better fit the image of a bizarre and unpredictable regime than Iran does today.  One could have made a much better case for a preemptive strike against China’s nuclear capabilities in the late 1960’s and early 70’s than one can for taking out Iran’s emerging nuclear program.  There were people who advocated preemptive action against China, but fortunately they were not heeded.  Advocates of preemptive actions against Iran should be disregarded as well.  The Iranian mullahs may be radical, but there is no evidence that they are suicidal.  In all likelihood, they are deterrable.

That being said, there is one thing we must make clear to Tehran—and to North Korea as well.  There dare not be any transfer of nuclear weapons or nuclear technology to terrorist organizations.  That is a very bright red line that no regime can cross and hope to survive.  The reason for such an uncompromising position on that point is that Al Qaeda and its ilk are not deterrable; they are not rational nation-state actors.  The message to Tehran should be that we can accept Iran in the global nuclear club, albeit reluctantly, but any transfer of nuclear material or weapons to nonstate actors will be considered an act of war.

The combination of acceptance and deterrence is not a panacea.  Iran would be very high on any American’s list of the countries one would least like to see with nuclear weapons.  A policy of acceptance and deterrence, however, is certainly better than a preemptive war that could have catastrophic consequences in the region—and beyond.